Tom Hemopo has been a sheep farmer, scrub cutter, freezing worker, Māori Affairs housing officer and a probation officer.
Not necessarily the kind of jobs to prepare him for fronting up with a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal — but that's what he did a couple of years ago.
He was disgusted with what he saw as the failure of the Corrections department. Tom’s now keeping a close eye on the Crown efforts to satisfy the Tribunal, as he tells Dale in this interview.
Kia ora, Tom. Sadly, St Stephen’s School in Bombay is no longer operating. But I understand that’s where you spent some time as a boy, nearly 60 years ago. Not that it was all that close to where you grew up.
No, not at all. I grew up at Maramahatea, at the tip of Mahia Peninsula, in a shack with a dirt floor, and an open fire over which the pots would sit on a couple of pieces of railway track. We didn’t have any mattresses, so we used wool from dead sheep to sleep on. But you know, Dale, our home was tidier than many I see today.
We had very little, and tikanga dictated our lives.
My grandfather was Te Whare Maihihi Hotu. He was a paramount chief of Ngāti Maniapoto and was awarded an OBE for his work. That’s on my mum’s side. On my dad Wiremu Kaho Hemopo’s side, the name of my koroua was Honge Mita. He was one of the last students of Ngā Heru mai Tawhiti, the whare wānanga on Portland Island (Waikawa), just out from the tip of the peninsula.
My mum, Janice Rea Hotu, had to learn and recite whakapapa flawlessly when she was growing up. And, as a result, she was a whakapapa expert. So I was always told never to forget who I am and where I come from.
When I went to St Stephen’s, it used to take me two-and-a-half days to get there. I had to ride a horse from Maramahatea to Mahia, then catch a bus to Wairoa. And, from Wairoa, I caught another bus and went through Te Urewera to Rotorua, where I caught a bus that took me, finally, to Bombay.
I loved that old school because our principal, Joe Lewis, was a stickler for rules and regulations and I learned a helluva a lot. It saddens me every time I go past and I see the state of the college today. It’s just been abandoned.
St Stephen’s had a great reputation for many years, but there was also some criticism, later on, especially about bullying by the older boys. Was that a problem for you?
Not when I was there. I was there only for two years, and I never saw any bullying because the sixth and seventh formers were huge guys, and they looked after everybody. Graham Campbell, John Moorefield, Jim Maniapoto, Johnson Wehi, just to name a few. If you stepped out of line, then you might get the cane around your backside. But nine times out of ten we deserved it, because we were too cheeky or haututū, for want of a better word.
After those two years at Tipene, I couldn’t go back, because my dad passed away and I had to stay home to help my mum.
That must’ve been a big shock and burden to lose your pop when you were so young. What happened?
At the time, we didn’t know what killed him, but we now know he had diabetes. We had a diet of fatty boiled food, and kaimoana. We all thought it was normal, and I used to love it when Mum would boil up nanny goat and then put it in what we called hinu, the fat. And that was our preserved kai for the winter. We called that tahu miti, and it kept us alive.
So you returned to the farm to help your mother out. What was life like there at that time?
Well, in those days, everybody looked after everybody else. You could call into anyone’s home and have a kai. There were no locks on anything and, as long as you left the house tidy and left a note saying “Thank you for the kai,” it was an acceptable practice.
Even vehicles weren’t locked. And, when I was growing up with my Pākehā mates, you never heard the word racism. We thought we were all the same.
And the farm? Was that sheep or cattle?
Just sheep. It was hard work, but the life was good. We could go anywhere we wanted. We could go to the beach and pick up crayfish or kina or paua, and then we could go out and shoot a deer or a pig or a nanny goat. Life was absolutely good, and sometimes I think to myself: Gee, I wish I was back there growing up again.
But when I first came back from St Stephen’s to help Mum, I initially got a job as a scrub cutter. I enjoyed it because it was hard physical work and it made me damn fit and fast.
I then went to work at Whakatu Freezing works, half way between Napier and Hastings, as it was easy money. I stayed there for about eight years. That’s where I met my lovely wife, Christine, one of the locals from Whakatu — and we got married and had three children.
Later on in your life, prison, prison reforms, reoffending, and the Crown’s obligations to Māori, all became big issues for you. But how did you come to go down that path?
I worked for some time for the old Department of Māori Affairs as a housing community officer. My area was from Gisborne, right down to Castlepoint in the Wairarapa.
But then my nanny got a hold of my ear and said: “Hey, if you don’t go and help our people, then I’m going to get stuck into you.” We had a lot of respect for our many nannies, and I said, “Okay, Nan, if you want me to go and do that, I’ll do it.”
So I signed up as a probation officer. And I never looked back. I started in 1984 and carried on right up to 2010.
Now, looking back on all that experience and all those Māori caught up in the Corrections system, how do you feel about the number of Māori who are inside?
I’m appalled, Dale, because when we have 10,000 male inmates, with more than half of them Māori, that’s a huge concern, especially when you think of the thousands of kids who have a parent inside. They are the invisible victims of our criminal justice system.
Yes, people who’ve committed crimes need to pay for their indiscretions, but it’s the whānau of those men and women who suffer most.
When a mum or a dad goes into prison, then the grandparents usually have to pick up the mokopuna and look after them, and one sad thing about that is that they don’t get any assistance from the state. They’ve got to use their own resources.
I guess we have to factor in other issues. Like high unemployment, intergenerational unemployment, drug and alcohol issues, educational underachievement, loss of land, loss of culture. There are a lot of reasons behind offending, but, as a society, we overlook much of that. It’s often a case of out of sight, out of mind, isn’t it?
That was one of the reasons why I went to the Waitangi Tribunal. There are people in Corrections who’re paid very good salaries to effect change. But they’re not delivering.
Despite that failure year after year, there must be a number of occasions when a probation officer is able to provide some genuine help.
That’s true. And sometimes that comes from teaching tikanga. Sometimes, once you walk these young fullas through our tikanga or cultural processes, the light switches on, and they change their ways — and most don’t come back to prison.
I remember talking to a number of guys who’d been in trouble and I said: “Hey, do you fullas ever go down to the marae and steal from there?” And they all said: “Like hell! Something might come back and bite us.”
I said: “Yeah, that’s true. But what about when you went down the road and ripped off that Pākehā?”
They said: “Well, there’s nothing tapu over there.” I said: “Hang on a minute. Let’s think about this. Didn’t the fulla in the blue uniform come and get you. You breached the tapu of that whānau — and the payback was the policeman putting you in the court, and the court putting you in the jail.”
And, sometimes, in a conversation like that, you can see the lights switch on.
We hear of Māori units in some prisons, Māori-focused prison programmes. You’re familiar with them. Do they work? And are there enough of them?
There’s not enough of them. I think there’s five right across the country, and they’re only able to take 200 each. So we’re talking about only 1000 overall. What happens to the other 4000 or so Māori?
Look, I loved the Māori unit over here in Kahungunu, because the guys there actually know what they’re doing. They’re very good at their work. But when the inmates are finally released and they come on to probation, their training stops because no probation officer has the skills to take it on.
Sadly they’re left in limbo and it’s not long before they’re back offending again.
It’s clear that the rate of Māori reoffending concerned you for much of your working life — and that drove you to making a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal a couple of years ago. You were drawing attention to the disparity between the rate of Māori reoffending (80 percent within five years) and the non-Māori rate of 67 percent.
That led to the Waitangi Tribunal hearing, and then, 12 months ago, its 105-page report.
As I recall, the Crown had argued that it was doing all it could. But the Tribunal said “it can and must do more”. How did all that sit with you, Tom?
I was absolutely happy with the findings. But, as you know, the Tribunal can only make recommendations, and it’s up to government to put them into operation. But the one thing they (Waitangi Tribunal) did do is leave the door open for me to go back if the department reneged or failed to implement any of them.
How long are you giving them?
Twelve months from last December to this December. If nothing is done, I’m going back.
As one man who lodged a Waitangi Tribunal claim, what would you say to people about their power as individuals?
People have the power within their own hands to do what needs to be done. You don’t have to be anything special to do what I did, Dale. All you have to do is have aroha for our people.
Financially, it’s risky, but my philosophy in life is that you can’t take the stuff with you, so you might as well use it to benefit our people. That’s how I see it.
Although I will say that I wish these so-called iwi leaders would start doing what I’m doing. If they all jumped on board then I believe we would get there a lot quicker.
(In its report, Tū Mai Te Rangi!, the Tribunal found that the Crown hadn’t breached its partnership obligations “given that the Department of Corrections is making good faith attempts to engage with iwi and hapu.”
But it said that, although the Justice sector had announced a broad target to reduce Māori reoffending, the Department of Corrections had no “specific plan or strategy to reduce Māori reoffending rates, no specific target, no specific budget to meet this end.”
Overall, the Tribunal concluded that “the Crown is not prioritising the reduction of the rate of Māori reoffending and is in breach of its Treaty obligations to protect Māori interests and to treat Māori equitably.”)
This interview has been edited and condensed.